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review 2018-05-04 19:34
If you believe in the power of stories and love magic, theatre, families, and heart-warming novels, you must read this feel-good book. Love at first-read.
Days of Wonder - Keith Stuart

Thanks to NetGalley and to Little, Brown and Company UK (Clara Díaz in particular) for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I read and reviewed Keith Stuart’s first novel A Boy Made of Blocks, a truly extraordinary book, a couple of years ago, and loved it. I could not resist when I was offered the opportunity to read the author’s second novel. And, again, it was love at first read.

Days of Wonder has some similarities to A Boy. It does center on the relationship between a father and his child (in this case, Hannah), and how their relationship is shaped by a specific condition affecting the child (Asperger’s in the first novel, a chronic cardiac illness that cannot be cured and will only get worse in this novel). All the characters are beautifully portrayed, not only the protagonists but, in this case, also an array of secondary characters that become an ersatz family unit.

Tom, the father, runs a small theatre and has close links to the amateur theatrical group. His wife, Elizabeth, left the family when their daughter was three and leads the life of a high-flier, with no real contact with her family. Hannah has grown-up in the theatre, surrounded by the players and by stories, both on stage and out.

The book, narrated in the first person by both Tom and Hanna (mostly in alternating chapters, although towards the end there are some that follow the same character’s point of view, due to the logic of the story). Hannah’s narration in the present is interspersed with what appear to be diary entries addressed to Willow, (the theatre is called The Willow Tree). She is a strong girl, who loves her father, the theatre and the players, her friends, and who has a can-do attitude, despite her serious illness, or perhaps because of it. She knows how valuable each moment is, and lives it to the fullest (within her limitations). She is worried about her father and how much he has focused his life on her and decides that he must find a woman and live a fuller life. She loves comics, fairy-tales, is funny (having a sense of humour does help in such a situation, without a doubt), witty, and wise beyond her years, whilst being a credible teenager who worries about boys and can sometimes have questionable judgement. I challenge anybody not to fall in love with Hannah, her enthusiasm, and her zest for life.

Tom is a father who tries his hardest in a very difficult situation, and who sometimes finds himself in above his head, unable to function or to decide, frozen by the enormity of the situation. He is one of the good guys, he’d do anything to help anybody, and some of his philosophical reflections are fairly accurate, although, like most of us, he’s better at reading others than at understanding himself. His date disasters provide some comic relief but he is somebody we’d all love to count as a friend. Or, indeed, a father.

One of my favourite characters is Margaret, an older woman who has become a substitute grandmother for Hannah, and who is absolutely fabulous, with her anecdotes, her straight speaking, her X-ray vision (she knows everything that goes on even before the people involved realise what is going on sometimes), and she is a bit like the fairy-godmother of the fairy tales Hannah loves so much. As for the rest, Callum, Hannah’s boyfriend, is a very touching character, with many problems (the depiction of his depression is accurate and another one of the strong points of a book full of them), and the rest of the theatre crew, although they appear to be recognisable types at first sight (the very busy mother who wants some space for herself, the very capable woman whose husband is abusive, a retired man whose relationship with his wife seems to be falling apart, a gay man who can’t confess his attraction for another member of the group…), later come across as genuine people, truly invested in the project, and happy to put everything on the line for the theatre.

The novel is set in the UK and it has many references that will delight the anglophiles and lovers of all-things-British, from language quirks to references to plays, movies, TV series and festivals. (Oh, and to local politics as well), but I’m sure that the lack of familiarity with them will not hinder the readers’ enjoyment. Although there are also quite a number of references to theatre plays and comics (and I don’t know much about comics, I confess), they never overwhelm the narration and are well integrated into the story, adding to its depth.

The book deals in serious subjects (family break-ups, abuse, chronic physical and mental illnesses [affecting young people, in particular], aging and death, growing-up, single-parent families) and whilst it makes important points about them, which many readers will relate to, they are seamlessly incorporated into the fabric of the novel, and it never feels preachy or as if it was beating you over the head with a particular opinion or take on the topic.

Reading the author’s comment above, I can vouch for his success. This is indeed a book about love, life, and magic. It is a declaration of love to the world of theatre and to the power of stories. The novel is beautifully written, flows well, and the readers end up becoming members of their troupe, living their adventures, laughing sometimes and crying (oh, yes, get the tissues ready) at other times. Overall, despite its sad moments, this is a hopeful feel-good book, heart-warming and one that will make readers feel at peace with themselves and the world. It has a great ending and although I wondered at first if the epilogue was necessary, on reflection, it is the cherry on top of the trifle. Perfect.

The book is endlessly quotable and I’ve highlighted a tonne of stuff, but I couldn’t leave you without sharing something.

Here is Hanna, talking about magic:

I don’t mean pulling rabbits out of hats or sawing people in half (and then putting them back together: otherwise it’s not magic, it’s technically murder). I just mean the idea that incredible things are possible, and that they can be conjured into existence through will, effort and love.

As I’m writing this review on Star Wars Day, I could not resist this quote, again from Hannah:

I feel as though it’s closing in around me, like the trash-compactor scene in Star Wars, except I have no robots to rescue me although I do have an annoying beeping box next to the bed doing a twenty-four-hours-a-day impression of R2-D2.

Oh, and another Star Wars reference:

It’s as though the spirit of Margaret is working through me, like a cross between Maggie Smith and Yoda.

And a particularly inspiring one:

Margaret told me that you must measure life in moments —because unlike hours or days or weeks or years, moments last forever. I want more of them. I am determined. I will steal as many as I can.

A beautiful book, a roller-coaster of emotions, and an ode to the power of stories, to their magic, and to family love, whichever way we choose to define family. I urge you to read it. You’ll feel better for it. And I look forward to reading more books by its author, who has become one of my favourites.

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url 2015-07-30 16:01
The Grand Shattering (from Harper's Magazine)

Another (very good, rather intense) article on motherhood and writing. There is a definite theme in the articles that interest me these days.

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url 2015-07-28 20:21
The Struggle of Being Both a Parent and a Writer (from Buzzfeed)

You can substitute "reader" for "writer," and the idea is the same. How does our writing/reading change when we become parents (especially mothers)? This piece comes from a personal place for the author, but I find that I am experiencing something similar as the mother of a small child.

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review 2015-06-11 21:20
Book 51/100: Maybe Baby - 28 Writers Tell the Truth about Skepticism, Infertility, Baby Lust, Childlessness, Ambivalence, and How They Made the Biggest Decison of Their Lives
Maybe Baby: 28 Writers Tell the Truth About Skepticism, Infertility, Baby Lust, Childlessness, Ambivalence, and How They Made the Biggest Decision of Their Lives - Lori Leibovich

Out of all the essay anthologies I've read, I think that this one was probably the best.

It seems almost inevitable that an anthology is going to be a mixed bag, but this one didn't have any standout "duds." Some were certainly more moving than others; in particular, the essays about why people chose not to have children felt more didactic, whereas the essays from parents were more narrative in nature. Still, every essay was well written, most of them were vivid, and some of them will probably stick with me for a while. While none of them fell particularly short, it's also true that none of them totally blew me away. This is a solid four-star collection for those interested in memoir, or the decision "to be or not to be" when it comes to parenthood.

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review 2015-06-09 20:26
Book 49/100: The Prenatal Prescription by Peter W. Nathanielsz
The Prenatal Prescription - Peter W. Nathanielsz,Christopher Vaughan

This was the first book I read on the phenomenon of "prenatal programming," but there wasn't a whole lot here that was new to me.

While the idea that what happens in the womb has a profound impact on someone's later life was probably pretty revolutionary when this book was published about 10 years ago, it is less so now. Still, a lot of the information here is still good, and I appreciate that the tips given are research and evidence based rather than just commonly accepted wisdom -- even though, alas, a lot of it DOES boil down to commonly accepted wisdom. So while this is an accessible, fairly empowering read, I didn't feel as if there was a ton here that I didn't already know. Also, there were so many misprints, including sentences that just dropped off in the middle, that I thought Nathanielsz must have self-published his findings. Nope, it was published by HarperCollins -- before the recessing and mass editor layoffs -- so someone was majorly sleeping on the job when this one came through for quality control.

I suspect the more recent Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, which has gotten a lot of attention, is probably a better book on this subject. But THAT book was not available at my yearly library booksale for a buck.

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